San Francisco 49ers

49ers’ Hayne raising profile of ‘gridiron’ Down Under

SF 49ers RB Jarryd Hayne adjusts to NFL football

​San Francisco 49ers running back Jarryd Hayne, the former Australian Rugby League star, is adjusting to the NFL and American football after several weeks of training camp and a preseason game against the Houston Texans. Video by Manny Crisostomo,
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​San Francisco 49ers running back Jarryd Hayne, the former Australian Rugby League star, is adjusting to the NFL and American football after several weeks of training camp and a preseason game against the Houston Texans. Video by Manny Crisostomo,

In California, Jarryd Hayne’s attempt to make the 49ers’ roster has become a neat little story. In Australia, it’s the story.

Jarryd-goes-to-America items have been popular since the former Rugby League star began his unprecedented quest last year. But after Hayne dominated the highlight reel in the 49ers’ preseason opener Saturday in Houston, he has exploded Down Under.

On Thursday, four days after the game aired in Australia, four of the five most popular stories in The Daily Telegraph of Sydney centered on Hayne. The headline for one: “Hayne’s 49ers Shirts Hit the Shelves.”

Three Australian reporters made the 9,000-mile, pan-Pacific trek to Houston for that game and then had to be shushed in the press box for cheering – “Go, Jarryd! Go, Jarryd!” – during Hayne’s 53-yard run. Approximately 20 credentials have been issued to Australian media for Sunday’s game against the Cowboys at Levi’s Stadium.

Even in Cairns, a city of 150,000 on the country’s north coast, the hosts on the afternoon drive radio station Tuesday weren’t discussing a shark attack at the nearby Great Barrier Reef but rather Jim Tomsula’s attempt to manage expectations about Hayne.

“He’s essentially representing Australia in one of the biggest sporting competitions in the world,” said Brad Walter, a reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald. “There’s a lot of goodwill toward him and a lot of people wanting to see him succeed. It’s a fascination with, ‘Can he make it?’ and ‘How far will he go?’”

Americans may think their country is obsessed with sports, but Australia – where 23 million people support five professional sports leagues – is truly bonkers about athletics. Rugby league, rugby union, Australian rules football and soccer are popular in different regions, and they’re all referred to as football or “footy” by their backers.

Other than the Super Bowl, the sport many Australians call “gridiron” hardly has registered. There have been a few Australian punters in the NFL. And Jesse Williams, the Brisbane-raised defensive tackle who plays for the Seahawks, has stirred interest.

Hayne stands out because he has the star power to grab the entire nation’s attention. Or at least the attention of the populous eastern half of the continent where the National Rugby League is king.

Walter said Hayne, 27, was one of the three or four best rugby players when he left and that he’d consistently been at the top of the sport since he began playing professionally at 18.

In Australia, no event is bigger than the rugby league State of Origin series between Queensland and New South Wales. Of the five most-watched television programs in Australia last year, the top three were State of Origin matches.

Before last year’s series, Queensland had won an unprecedented seven straight titles. In 2014, New South Wales finally broke that streak, thanks largely to Hayne, who hails from just outside Sydney in New South Wales and played professionally for the Parramatta Eels.

“He didn’t do it single-handedly, but Hayne was certainly a big factor in New South Wales finally winning it last year,” Walter said. “And this year without him, Queensland won again. He’s one of the most influential players in whatever game he plays in.”

Ryan Little, who lives in Cairns, has a unique perspective on the Hayne phenomenon.

Like a lot of men in their late 30s, Little became hooked on the NFL, and the 49ers in particular, by watching Joe Montana during the team’s heyday in the 1980s. He grew up in Kamloops, British Columbia, and once worked as a sports director at a radio station in the province before moving to Australia 13 years ago.

Finding a 49ers item in the local paper used to be rare. Now his favorite team suddenly is everywhere. The team’s most recent preseason game was broadcast on television – which never would have happened before Hayne arrived in Santa Clara – and stories about the Aussie’s triumph in Houston are inescapable.

“It’s massive here,” said Little, 38. “It’s on all the news channels, the sports channels. You just do a quick search on the Australian news sites, and there (are) pages of stories. They’ve got the video of his 53-yard run splashed up everywhere.”

Little said Australian colleagues stop him at work to ask, ‘So what exactly are a running back’s responsibilities?’”

“This is all brand new to people,” Little said. “It’s like, ‘What? Really? One of our guys is playing gridiron? This is amazing.’”

For a league that wants to expand globally and is considering playing games in Brazil, Mexico and Germany, it’s a welcome development. Last year, the league sent Reggie Bush, now Hayne’s teammate, to Australia to bolster the announcement that the Seven Network, the nation’s most-watched channel, had signed a five-year deal to be Australia’s official broadcaster of the NFL.

Now the Aussies can’t stop tuning in.

“We’re watching this guy trying to make it. It’s fascinating,” Walter said. “There’s a lot of skepticism. There’s a lot of people thinking, ‘Well, who does he think he is?’ Or ‘He’ll never make it. How can he think that he’ll make the NFL when he’s never played a game?’ But there (are) other people who want him to do well and see him following his dream and having a go.”

Matt Barrows: @mattbarrows, read more about the team at sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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